Do Soccer Moms Bowl Alone?

Robert Putnam has turned his much-touted “bowling alone” thesis into a book, titled (appropriately) Bowling Alone. Putnam is the Harvard professor who for several years has argued that American community, as represented in localized groupings such as bowling leagues, PTAs, Kiwanis Clubs, and the like, is on the decline, and that this is creating all kinds of social havoc. (Click here to read Putnam’s much-discussed 1996 article in the American Prospect, “The Strange Disappearance of Civic America.” Click here to see Putnam’s own “bowling alone” Web page.)

But what about Soccer Moms? In April 1996, the Atlantic Monthly published a thoughtful essay by Nicholas Lemann titled “Kicking in Groups.” In it, Lemann argued that the decline of what Putnam called “social capital” was really an inner-city problem mainly affecting low-income blacks, but that Putnam and his followers chose to define it as a society-wide problem because the social misery of low-income blacks was of little interest to the broad public. For most people, Lemann argued, there seemed to be plenty of new civic associations that had sprung up in recent years to replace old ones like bowling leagues that were dying.

The most dramatic example I could find–and a nicely apposite one, too–is U.S. Youth Soccer, which has 2.4 million members, up from 1.2 million ten years ago and from 127,000 twenty years ago. As a long-standing coach in this organization, I can attest that it involves incessant meetings, phone calls, and activities of a kind that create links between people which ramify, in the manner described by Putnam, into other areas.

Four years after Lemann’s article was published, membership in the U.S. Youth Soccer Association has risen to more than 3 million, according to the group’s Web site. Even Chatterbox, whose level of civic activism is somewhat anemic, on spring and fall weekends hauls his 7-year-old to various parks and school playgrounds to play goalie for the local soccer team (coached, until recently, by an editor from Salon).

The word “soccer” does not appear in Putnam’s 1996 American Prospect piece, but Putnam addresses Lemann’s soccer challenge on pages 109-111 of Bowling Alone. He concedes that

Some evidence suggests that sports clubs have become slightly more common over the last two decades; according to the General Social Survey, membership in such clubs grew from 19 percent in 1974-5 to 21 percent in 1993-4. On the other hand, many studies have found, somewhat surprisingly, that participation rates in most sports have actually fallen in recent decades. Since the population is growing, the gross number of participants is also growing in some cases. … Among team sports, soccer and basketball are up, but not enough to offset simultaneous falloffs in all other major team sports–softball, baseball, volleyball and football. … Surprisingly, after an exponential increase in youth soccer in the 1980s, even participation in that fashionable sport slowed in the 1990s [italics Chatterbox’s].

A footnote on Page 461 elaborates on this last point:

Youth membership in organized soccer leagues, standardized for numbers of youth aged five to nineteen, more than tripled between 1980 and 1995, according to the Soccer Industry Council. On the other hand, both SGMA [Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association] and NSGA [National Sporting Goods Association] data suggest that nationwide per capita growth in soccer participation stagnated after 1990, especially among adolescents.

Chatterbox, who has not read Bowling Alone in its entirety, hopes this logic is not typical of the whole book. Of course “nationwide per capita growth” in soccer league participation is leveling off. It would be mathematically impossible for it to grow forever; eventually you’d run out of U.S. youth aged 5 to 19. The Soccer Mom lives.